Mark O’Connor is a lot more like Benny Goodman than you might think. Like Goodman, O’Connor, too, is a virtuoso in the realm of popular music, and also like Goodman, he easily and brilliantly performs classical music, as well. When he swings on his fiddle, one can almost hear Django Reinhardt strumming along in spirit.
Oh, the ghost of American music past comes back from the beyond to hear this man perform, and notable contemporaries are happy to share the stage with him, but his sound, though deeply influenced by so many quality musicians, is distinctly his own. His most recent CD, Americana Symphony, was released this month.
Variations on Appalachia Waltz
(OMAC; US: 10 Mar 2009)
Hot Swing: Live In New York
(OMAC; US: 13 Jan 2009)
(OMAC; US: 14 Oct 2008)
O’Connor talks with PopMatters 20 Questions about quality art in many forms, including how fun it would be to share a dinner at the Ritz with a very different kind of artist, Tina Fey.
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
The Wrestler really stayed with me. The character reminded me that when you have such a passion for something, as I have for music, you wonder if you could live without being able to do it all the time.
2. The fictional character most like you?
Oh geez, how about Owen Wilson’s character, John Beckweth, in Wedding Crashers.
3. The greatest album, ever?
My last one? OK…my first one then!
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Wars. I just did a gig with James Earl Jones.
5. Your ideal brain food?
Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. And Ludwig van Beethoven, too.
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
Helping to create a new kind of classical music of America, because frankly we are way behind the other art forms in this endeavor.
7. You want to be remembered for…?
Someone who helped bring the violin back in to prominence in America, and creating a style of music that fully utilizes the 400 years of American fiddling cultures, Blues music, and 100 years of jazz, and fully implementing these things to inform a new classical music.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
The classical virtuoso Nicolò Paganni, the jazz giant Stéphane Grappelli, and the folk fiddling legend Benny Thomasson.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.
10. Your hidden talents…?
Doing elbow stands on a skateboard.
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
“Follow your heart.” Never, ever believe someone who tells you that you can’t do something!
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
The greatest thing for me is borrowed time, the nine lives I have survived from an impoverished childhood, the second chances to find my way, and to realize today that I have an opportunity to make a difference.
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
I would love to travel back to Beethoven and Paganini’s day. I think that Mozart and Bach’s life would be easier to understand with what has been written about them, but for me there is more of an intrigue in how Beethoven and Paganini created their music careers independent of the monarchy and royalty that the master musicians before them were so tied to. They were fearless leaders in every sense.
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
Well, two of those don’t work for me at all, so does that leave “hit man”?
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?
PopMatters is going to be very, very proud of me … I gave up all four of those things years ago!
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
Right where I live, in the middle of music world: Manhattan Island, New York City.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
If we can get through this recession soon, next… I really would like to see arts and music back in the schools, taught by our country’s best teachers at the pay they deserve.
If you want good math and science results across the population, then we need to put an instrument into the hands of these kids in their formative years. There is a direct correlation between learning music and intellectual development.
From Jefferson and Franklin to many of our academic leaders, scientists, researches and mathematicians today, they know, love, or even play music. There is a part of the brain that is exercised from learning music seriously. This application causes critical thinking every second one plays an instrument. It’s different than most any other activities one could undertake.
Photo (partial) by Jim McGuire
If my music ability was taken from me, perhaps I would be an expert in molecular biology like my sister, or a Harvard scholar, like my son!
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
I’m finishing up Books 1 and 2 of my new Violin Method, finishing the final movement of my “Triple Concerto” for orchestra, completing post-production on the new String Quartets CD I composed and performed on, putting final touches on the Tribute to Abe Lincoln concert with orchestra that I’m doing at NYC’s Lincoln Center, and teaching / coaching students where I am in residence at UCLA. I’m also doing interviews about my Americana Symphony, released on CD March 10.